July 18, 2024

I’m Not the Wargamer You Want Me to Be – A Response to Harold Buchanan & His Historical Simulation Engagement Profile

RockyMountainNavy, 22 February 2021

C3i Magazine Nr. 34 introduces a new column by designer Harold Buchanan, designer of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games) and Campaigns of 1777 (Decision Games). He also was the developer of the issue’s feature game, Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 designed by Trevor Bender.

Harold Buchanan’s Snakes and Ladders, Nr. 1 is “Why do we play what we play?”

In the article, Harold recounts an interview on his Harold on Games podcast with Ananda Gupta (co-designer of Twilight Struggle and Imperial Struggle, both from GMT Games) and their discussion on player archetypes. In this new column Harold introduces us to his hypothetical taxonomy of wargamers. Since Harold said he wanted to trigger some discussion and welcomed comments, I’m weighing in. So here goes.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Brant, the Regimental Commander and Editor-in-Chief here at Armchair Dragoons also pointed me to a study titled, “Experiences of Hobby Game Players: Motivations Behind Playing Digital and Non-Digital Games” written by himself and CarrieLynn Reinhart. “The purpose of this study was to investigate the patterns of motivation and usage by card, role-playing, computer, and board game players, known in this study as hobby game players.“ Brant, I read it and hope Harold considered it before he wrote his column but it doesn’t change my reaction to him below.

Mentioned in the Harold on Games podcast was an article by Patrick Carroll in The General Volume 25, Nr. 5 from 1989 which described three player profiles in wargaming: the Competitor, the Socializer, and the Dreamer. Not only does Harold reference this article, but Patrick Carroll makes an appearance in a response after Harold’s column in the latest C3i Magazine. Coincidentally, I am also reading Jon Peterson’s latest book, Elusive Shift, which talks about the early days of D&D and the “conflicts” roleplaying gamers had with wargamers. Both of those works were at the forefront of my mind as I read Harold’s column.
A New Pentagon Wargamer

Harold’s Historical Simulation Engagement Profile consists of five attributes: History, Mechanics, Strategy, Social, and Visual. Basically, the more one exhibits a given attribute, the further out from the middle that player is depicted on the diagram. The result is a radar chart depiction of a wargamer. As we will shortly discover, for History, Mechanics, and Strategy being further out on the chart is “bad” whereas for Social and Visual being closer to the center is “bad.”

IMG 1763
“Core Wargamer” according to Harold

click images to enlarge

Harold gives us his very loose definitions of each attribute. I note that none of these are “hard and fast” rules but often a subjective judgment – not a quibble (yet) but an observation.

History – “At one extreme (the outer part of the diagram), players feel passionately about the history and will only play games that represent their views of the history. As we approach the center of the diagram, we find players who may not be familiar with the history in any depth and usually aren’t critical of the presentation. In between we find players that are interested/curious about the history but will not select or discard a game based on its portrayal.”

I’m trying to think of a wargame that players play only because it represents “their views of the history.” Or is Harold telling us that people who play Ty Bomba’s Tomorrow the World (3W, 1989) aka Triumph of the Will (Compass Games, 2017) are Fascists? I also don’t understand why because one chooses NOT to play a game from a given time period they are pushed to the outside of the chart (seemingly the “bad” direction according to Harold). How does personal interest (or disinterest) in a time period make somebody a “bad wargamer?” That’s like saying someone is not a fantasy literature fan just because they haven’t read Tolkien.

Mechanics – “At the inner extreme we find players that enjoy a variety of mechanisms and would never use the word simulation. On the outside of the hub we find players who find religion in the mechanics.”

Where would somebody place that only wants to play single-mechanic deck-builder wargames? How about somebody who prefers area control with chit pull? This definition doesn’t work because at the outer extreme Harold wants to put “simulation” and at the inside he wants to put “many mechanics.” In reality, many mechanics can make a simulation. Come on Harold, just say, “At the outer extreme are rigid simulations and at the inner extreme are those elegant Eurogame-derived mechanics.” Harold doesn’t explicitly say it here, but I feel like he is communicating that “good” mechanics have “elegance” whereas more simulationist wargames are, by default, “bad.” 

Strategy – “Strategy attributes on the outside of the diagram trend toward complex games that require a great deal of thought, before, during, and after a game….Time invested learning, playing, and studying decline as we move toward the inside of the diagram….Near the inside extreme of the diagram players prefer lite games.”

Within this definition, I fear Harold is mixing strategy (thinking about your actions) with complexity (mechanical difficulty). For an excellent discussion of Game Complexity I recommend listening to Ludology Episode 238 “Unraveling Complexity” where they discussed six forms of game complexity in depth. Further, I believe that complexity and strategy are not linearly related. Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (C3i Magazine Nr. 32) is a very lite wargame that takes little time to learn and not that much time to play. You might not think about it ahead of time, but as you play and afterwards I challenge you to not reflect upon what Mr. Herman really means when he says he wanted to design a wargame that is “History distilled to its essence.” 

Social – “At the outer extreme, a game is not worth playing alone or even without a crew at the table….Moving toward the center we find players who care less about who they are playing and more about the quality of game play….At the inner most extreme, the player wouldn’t mind just playing alone and rejects the need to share an experience, either by choice or necessity (isolation by desideratum).”

This sounds simply like player count. Where does one like me fit? I play lots of solo wargames, some 2-player wargames with my Middle Boy, and other times I play multiplayer with both of my boys or a game group. Oh yeah, COVID sucks and we all have had to find ways to be social yet maintain social distance. Somehow that makes me a bad wargamer?

Visual – “In the hobby there are still classics from the 1970s and 1980s that are played but look and feel very dated. They prove that visual appeal of a game is not a key driver for all players (nearer the inside of the diagram)….At the outer extreme are players who feel the graphics play a key role in their gaming experience.”

I simply call this attribute “Harold’s bling factor.” It’s also grossly unfair; I’m sure that if in the 1970s Redmond Simonsen at SPI or Winchell Chung for Task Force Games had the same color palette available for publishing as Kyle Ferrin at Leder Games has today they would use it instead of those “boring pastels” or simple black & white (with just a dash of red).

Harold comments that he almost included a sixth attribute, Competition, or the need to win. I wish he had because I don’t feel splitting it between Strategy or Social clearly captures the need in some wargamers for competition. I personally believe it’s an important attribute and goes a long way towards explaining why I don’t play the non-historical, multi-mechanic, low strategy, highly social, blinged out X-Wing because I absolutely HATE the ruthless competitive attitudes around so much organized play in my area. I also note that both Carroll and Peterson include competition as an aspect of gamers (Competitors for Carroll, Power-Gaming for Peterson). 

One question I have for Harold concerns the “area” of the graph for a given wargamer. Is it possible in your taxonomy to “max out” every category? Or, does the “sum” of the five attributes have to equal 100%, meaning the more you are in one attribute the less you must be in another? Looking at the graphics provided, I feel that it it the latter. This seems important to me because I do not feel that the attributes are necessarily dependent on one another. Just because one might like complicated Mechanics does not mean they must give up on the Visual, or does it? Again, the graphics as shown seemingly tell me so.

Archetypes as Stereotypes

While I generally agree that Harold’s attributes are helpful descriptors of a wargamer, as you can tell I am unsure about some of the definitions and how to rate someone against a given attribute. Where Harold absolutely loses my support is when he maps his engagement model to illustrate five wargamer archetypes:

  • Leader – “Using this system to cover this conflict was brilliant.”
  • Gatekeeper – “That’s not a wargame!”
  • Convert – “I want to get into wargames.”
  • Expert – “I love that system – I play it almost exclusively.”
  • Core Wargamer – “I’d like to try that game; I’ve heard a lot about that system.”

Looking closely at the charts for each of the five archetypes, I really only see three groupings. The Leader and Core Wargamer are nearly identical while the Gatekeeper and Expert are also very similar to each other. The only really different one is the Convert. 

The archetype I least understand is Gatekeeper. Harold uses the Gatekeeper to make a point; through the language in his column Harold clearly dislikes Gatekeepers and uses this archetype to show gamers who have no place in the hobby with him. What I see is Harold telling us through his Gatekeeper archetype that he intensely dislikes wargamers who are high on History and Mechanics, play alone, and don’t want demand snazzy components. So I guess as a (near-simulation) Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020) player who really loves “refighting” the Cold War (my “view of history”?) but often has to do it in a solo setting (thanks, COVID) with counters substituting for miniature ships (or even just using graph paper – the horror!) I am automatically a negative for the hobby.

Gee, I didn’t know.

IMG 1764
“Gatekeeper” according to Harold


To me, the key failing of Harold’s Historical Simulations Engagement Model is that it seemingly defines player attitude by game preferences. While I too have a dislike for Gatekeepers, I personally believe there is no magical combination of these five attributes that makes one such a gamer. To me, a Gatekeeper is defined by their attitude and actions and not by the games they play – or don’t. It’s just as likely that a Leader acts like a gatekeeper as an Expert might. Likewise, an accountant is just as likely to be a Gatekeeper as a History major. I sure you know more than a few heavy Eurogamers who are just as likely to gatekeep as Catan players. 

Not All is Lost

Although I feel Harold’s Historical Simulations Engagement Model fails as a useful defintion of gamer archetypes, I still think it can be useful as a descriptor of one self without trying to fit into a particular archetype. Here I embrace Patrick Carroll’s thoughts in response to Harold:

“…reflect on them – ask yourself how they describe what you do and how you think about it. Notice whether other wargamers you know are similar or different. Over time, you may find yourself becoming more tolerant and self-aware….”

Harold’s model may also have use as a descriptor of historical wargames instead of players. Try mapping your favorite wargame using these five attributes. Then map a few more. After a while one might see a pattern, or a common range of attributes, in the games that one enjoys most – or least. You also possibly could be somebody like me who finds that my games are all over the map. It’s not a perfect translation but I think it makes a good start. One immediate problem I see is Social where one could easily assign a rating based on solo, 2-player, or multi-player. However, one has much more difficulty assigning a rating to games that have a large tournament segment of players because it might be a two-player game but the tournaments can be very social events. Better yet, try substituting Theme for History and see what what happens!

Make sure you read Harold’s column in C3i Magazine. Look at his engagement model and figure out where you are. Use it to discover you own biases, strengths and weaknesses. You can map other gamers, but don’t go so far as Harold did and try to pigeonhole them into an archetype and let that influence your interactions with them. Use Harold’s Historical Simulation Engagement Profile to help you understand yourself and your fellow gamer, not push them away just because they may be different than you.


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4 thoughts on “I’m Not the Wargamer You Want Me to Be – A Response to Harold Buchanan & His Historical Simulation Engagement Profile

  1. Hey Mr. Navy

    Thanks for taking the time to read my column in C3i and taking the time to break it down in such detail. No higher praise than to make it on a serious wargamer’s radar. It is interesting to see my piece through someone else’s eyes. I expect it will never look the way I envisioned it. I also expect players won’t agree that my 5 archetypes cover 80% of the hobby. Hopefully they will come up with their own archetypes and debate why we play. In which case its mission accomplished.

    A few thoughts on your analysis.

    First, the C3i piece was never meant to be an evaluation of good and bad. My model is offered as an opportunity to discuss why we play wargames accepting there are great differences in why many of us play. Judgement is not made on any wargamers (although I admit I am always disappointed by Gatekeepers.)

    Second, the scales of measurement are not 1 dimensional with good versus bad. Rather they are multi-dimensional continuums with positive qualities at any point. Not good and bad. Not best and worst. From the article: “The extreme measure of that attribute (furthest from the center) does represent the most visible manifestation of that attribute. In the interest of simplified presentation, a range of measures (not just the absence or presence of that attribute) are represented by the line.”

    Third, my dad told me something years ago that rings true today. “When people are talking and you think it is about you, it probably isn’t.” You can be any kind of gamer you want and I will be fine with it. Design of the Uber Wargamer is not my goal – they are likely a jerk anyway. My real goal would be to have us talk about our differences and more importantly how we can welcome new players from many backgrounds into the hobby we love.

    In summary I will direct you again the conclusion of the article. “In the end it appears that the Core Wargamer has some of each attribute. That’s powerful and it’s what really pulls us together as a group.”

    Thanks again for the vigorous commentary. Everything you publish is must read in my book. As for me, I’m off to work on my next column. Maybe something a little less controversial like “What is a wargame?”


  2. I’m not sure I even agree with some of the definitions. I would probably fall into the Gatekeeper category, but describing me as one who would tell someone else how “they are ALLOWED” to game is not accurate. There are all kinds of different gaming approaches (counter-clipping, tweezer using, resisting games that are not solitaire, and being “Vassal-resistant”) I don’t like and don’t agree with, but I certainly wouldn’t say that anyone shouldn’t be allowed to do those things, or they aren’t a wargamer.

    Also, history is very important to me, but I don’t feel a game has to “agree with my view of the hsitory” to be historically accurate or relevant. For one, I like a game to, if at all possible, have a lot of room for players to explore other strategies, and the ability to *change history* is very desirable. Also, if a game *teaches me something*, e.g., my viewpoint of history might actually be invalid, that’s a welcome outcome of playing a game too. ,

  3. I tend to agree with Rocky Mountain Navy and I was not that impressed with the C3I article. I found difficult to create archetypes for people, and often too restrictive, plus it lead to the bad habit to fit people into archetypes… (all Italians drink coffee… I have been told…). Personally I think history is what defines historical wargames… now I refuse to play games with bad (based on my own divine truth) history? Depends. One game I think is doing bad history and I do not want to play is S&T Dagger Trust. The Montgomery scenario is created to prove he was wrong… and not to analyze the situation… I think it is also a bad game… another game I have and do not play is Ted Raicer’s Storming the Reich. History is basically flawless… but because it is scripted the game itself irks me. Because I am not taking command decisions I am following a script. Sadly the engine is a good one (and I really like Red Storm over the Reich…).

    I envision wargames as historical analysis tools. So the history contained in them should be believable rather than fitting my own view. Actually a good game is one which sparks discussion. A wargame is a working model of an event real or imagined. Models are indeed wrong but useful. For example I think the historical model behind Fire in the Lake is wrong. Yet I play it and even use it in class because it sparks a relevant discussion. On the other hand I will never use in class ‘A Rumor of War’ or even play it after my first game. Beside the poor rules editing and the awfully massive map surface… history is not part of the game in any point. Order of battle is fantasy, the Allied reinforcements arrivals are fixed in schedule and location (if you are COMUSMACV it is you who request reinforcements and decides their location of arrival…). IT was the lowest point of Adam Streakweather as designer… (but no ill, I got Fulda from him… and again plenty of errors… but it appears Doomsday Project will improve…).

    What I do not like that much are games that put forward inaccuracies (those super-human Waffen somethings…) or made things wrong. The classic example is Ty Bomba and his rating of UK and French forces in his WW3 games… when you got the super French divisions (the problem here are not French soldiers, but the fact that the designer had forgot the fact that the French army reorganized its divisions in brigade size formations…) or the idea that the Foreign Legion is an independent regiment… (same designer…). Or games that offers statement without any back up (Red Tide West with neutral Denmark… and also other issues). I have a problem with games where history is bent to fit the model rather than the opposite (played several… even from students…)

    I also think TS is not a wargame… (and I do not like it too…)

    Said that I am a gatekeeper? Well, as long non one tell me what I have to play, I do not think it is my business telling them what they should play or not. Yes I have written negatively about the so called ‘introductory’ or ‘cross-over’ games in my blog, but more because I am not so sure that these serves as gate to the hobby. I have also complained about those people arguing we must change wargames to get more people into them (again often on the basis of ‘what is the point?’). But on the other hand I graded highly a student doing a presentation on Twilight Struggle on the basis that it was a good historical model of the Cold War. He supported his claims with evidence.

    Even someone who values history foremost is not trapped by his/her own ideas. This is why I find the whole idea of the archetypes skewered and probably a tad polemical… I admit freely that those columns about wargaming are getting tiresome (not as annoying as the C3I player profile… waste of ink IMHO… and of my shekels) I am not that impressed by the recent issues of C3I at all. Yet their games and more importantly variants are still top notch.



    I clip my counters…

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